President Donald Trump is facing a surge of bipartisan support to block his administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but he can breathe a sigh of relief that none of the measures to stop him are likely to become law.
A growing number of Senate Republicans are expected to join Democrats in the coming weeks on a series of floor votes to hit back at Trump and the kingdom. Their frustration comes over the Saudis’ murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and their role in the ongoing war in Yemen as well as the State Department’s move to bypass Congress and move forward with billions of dollars in arms sales to the U.S. ally.
But the votes will also demonstrate that only so many Republicans are willing to break with the White House when it comes to the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and the president’s authority over foreign policy. It’s unlikely that the measures will gain enough support to overcome a presidential veto.
“The administration will put the press on to make sure the number stays below 67,” conceded co-sponsor Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn), referring to the number of votes needed to override a veto. “I think we’ll have our work cut out for us to beat the administration to 67.”
Even Senate Republicans who may be sympathetic to the resolutions being considered are reluctant to hurt a U.S. ally, particularly one that’s countered Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
One of the measures, from Murphy (D-Conn.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) would request a report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which could lead to a vote to stop billions in arms sales under current law. The second, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) would block 22 arms sales.
“They’re going to buy ‘em from somebody,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who opposes the efforts to curb the arms sales. “It’s not a matter of keeping them out of their hands and they’re a sometimes-ally of the United States and they’re opposed to Iran.
“Saudi Arabia is one of the key buttresses against Iran controlling the whole Middle East and Muslim world,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at a press conference Tuesday that he is “as offended as everyone is by the behavior of the Saudis in the Khashoggi case.” But, he added, “the relationship we have with the Saudis, one of our best allies against our Iranian enemies, is important.”
McConnell said that he plans to vote against any resolution to block arms sales and for sustaining a veto from the president.
The push comes as the administration seeks to defend its decision to move forward with the arms sales, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced late last month. R. Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, will testify Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the arms sales.
“These sales and the associated emergency certification are intended to address the military need of our partners in the face of an urgent regional threat posed by Iran; promote the vitality of our bilateral relationships by reassuring our partners; and preserve strategic advantage against near-peer competitors,” Cooper will say, according to prepared testimony.
It’s unclear whether Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) will bring up the resolutions for a vote in his panel.
“I haven’t taken a position on that at this point,” Risch said, when asked whether he’d bring up the Murphy-Young measure. He also cast doubt on whether the resolution was privileged to come to the floor, noting that he’s read opinions on both sides.
But on the Graham-Menendez resolutions to block the arms sales, Risch said that he was holding talks with various players.
“I’m doing my best to negotiate to a bill that can pass both the House and the Senate and can be signed by the president,” Risch said. “There are ongoing negotiations amongst all parties, State Department and all others to try and reach an agreement on this. That is the objective that we’re trying to do.”
It’s unclear whether the Senate will hold 22 separate votes on the Graham-Menendez resolutions, which Menendez said are privileged on the floor.
While the measures are not likely to survive a veto override in the Senate or in the House — where 55 Republicans would need to break with Trump — passage in both chambers seems a good bet, with only a simple majority required under Senate rules.
Supporters predicted that the same Republican members who supported a resolution passed earlier this year to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-backed war in Yemen would likely back the new proposals.
The Yemen resolution passed the Senate with help from seven Republicans: Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Steve Daines of Montana, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Young.
The Yemen resolution, Menendez said, “gives you a pretty good roadmap of where we’d be.”
Several senators, including Murkowski, said they did not know yet how they would vote on the latest resolutions. Others predict that the latest measures will gain support from Republicans who did not vote for the resolution, including Graham.
“I think we might get 60 votes on it because people are upset about selling arms to people who use bone saws to chop up dissidents,” predicted Paul, a co-sponsor.
But he was less confident when asked whether there would be enough votes to override a veto. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”